Between his two daughters, Chris Snowden and his family have visited more than 15 colleges and universities – some multiple times – during the last five years.
“Between AP expectations, soccer, swimming, and lots of homework, finding time to squeeze in college tours meant visiting most schools during breaks,” Snowden says. “Their high school does have a policy of excusing absences to visit colleges but only during the student’s senior year. With the colleges on my daughters’ lists, we felt we needed to begin our college search much earlier, which meant that we could only visit colleges when their high school was closed and they didn’t have any games.”
Summer tours are an attractive option for many busy families, but there are distinct disadvantages to visiting schools when they’re not in session. Consider the following pros and cons of summer tours before you schedule your next visit.
Opportunity: Add it to your vacation schedule. “If your family has the financial luxury of taking you around the country or around the world to look at colleges and universities throughout the year that’s wonderful, but most families have to use their vacation time,” says Shawn Abbott, dean of admissions at NYU.
With most colleges offering two information sessions and tours a day, even in the summer, many families cram visits to several universities over the course of a few days. Big urban schools, like NYU, tend to have robust summer sessions with a lot of students on campus, so teens and their families can get a good idea of what the campus is like during the regular school year.
One suggestion offered by several college admissions’ counselors is for families to do some advanced planning during a student’s junior year. With many larger schools offering summer sessions, visit those schools during the summer and focus on smaller suburban or rural colleges during the school year.
Obstacle: It can be difficult to get an authentic feel for campus life. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of how crowded the library gets or how friendly students’ and teachers are, if there aren’t a lot of people around.
Snowden and his family did a mix of organized campus tours, unscheduled visits, interviews and class trips, beginning his oldest daughter’s freshman year. During the summer, campuses were quiet but the family had more time to roam and explore the university and surrounding area, he said. His girls preferred the spring tours because it was easier for them to determine if the institution was compatible when there were more students on campus.
Opportunity: There are less people on campus: “If they can fall in love with the campus when there are not a lot of people on it, they can come back during our winter for our open houses and see it in full swing to get a more in-depth look at the college,” says Lauren McCracken, a spokeswoman for Towson University.
She encourages families to look at summer tours as an opportunity to narrow their college list before they finalize their top choices.
“I don’t know too many places where students are going to go to college and really confine their experience in college exclusively to the campus,” NYU’s Abbott says. “You want to walk around the neighborhood and around the town, so you can get a picture of what your life will be like in that geographic setting.”
Opportunity: There are experts on campus to answer questions. Colleges know that families want to ask questions about admissions and financial aid, so those resources are likely available year-round.
It may be easier to speak with admissions staff in the summer than certain times during the school year. Admissions officers are usually buried in applications from November to March, and may have less flexibility for meetings, Abbott says.
Obstacle: You’re only getting the summer viewpoint of a school. Months of harsh winters, hot summers or stormy weather can have significant effects on a student’s experience. Students considering schools with distinct weather patterns need to visit the schools at different times.
I had a student a few years ago who was determined to go to Messiah College, which is on the shores of Lake Erie. I strongly suggested that she visit during the winter. Even though it was a hardship for her parents to drive her up there in a snow storm, visiting and living on campus during a weekend tour changed her mind forever on Messiah and any other schools that get a large amount of snow.
Students who don’t have the opportunity to visit schools can look for ways to connect with institutions and students online to get a more complete picture of student life. For example, students can see if virtual tours are available, connect with schools through social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and follow them on YouTube.
In addition, if you can’t tour the college’s campus, contact the admissions’ office to let someone there know of your interest in their school. While on the phone, take the opportunity to set up a phone interview with either an alumnus of the school or one of the admissions’ officer. Taking this action could cement your college acceptance.
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